An Introduction to Collecting Antique Saloon Tokens

Authentic Saloon Tokens

These two images show two sides of a saloon token from Chloride, Arizona, now a ghost town near Kingman. The token has a tender value of 12 1/2 cents, or one bit. Usually, that was worth one drink. Image courtesy Holabird-Kagin Americana, used with p
These two images show two sides of a saloon token from Chloride, Arizona, now a ghost town near Kingman. The token has a tender value of 12 1/2 cents, or one bit. Usually, that was worth one drink. Image courtesy Holabird-Kagin Americana, used with p
This authentic token from a saloon in Congress, Arizona is a desirable collector's item. Image copyright Holabird-Kagin Americana, used with permission.
This authentic token from a saloon in Congress, Arizona is a desirable collector's item. Image copyright Holabird-Kagin Americana, used with permission.
This token is also from a saloon in Congress, Arizona. Image copyright Holabird-Kagin Americana, used with permission.
This token is also from a saloon in Congress, Arizona. Image copyright Holabird-Kagin Americana, used with permission.
This is not a saloon token, but is a territorial trade token issued by a copper mine settlement in Bagdad Arizona. Image copyright Linda Lantin.
This is not a saloon token, but is a territorial trade token issued by a copper mine settlement in Bagdad Arizona. Image copyright Linda Lantin.

Long before the phrase "don't take any wooden nickels" was coined, saloons throughout the western United States, up the Yukon territories and through Alaska minted their own currency. Saloon tokens created for saloons were born out of the barter system that characterized the unsettled and sometimes uncivilized territories of the old west. Saloon owners returned change for their patrons' payments of real money for goods and services with tokens, which were "good for" drinks only at that saloon. Saloon patrons returned to use the tokens in lieu of real money.

These tokens, which were generally "good for" the goods and services at a specific place of business, were commonly used for business transactions in saloons all across the Western United States, according to one expert, beginning as early as the 1700s and lasting through the beginning of the 20th century when prohibition brought legal activities at saloons to a dead standstill.

Today, saloon tokens (a subset of bar tokens or pub tokens) are sought-after collectibles and hold a solid market in the coin-collecting world. Token-collecting is a subset of monetary coin-collecting—that is, coins and paper money used as legal tender—and has an avid following among history buffs, collectors of American Western memorabilia, and token and coin collectors. Tokens are classified as exonumia, a term that denotes the token's non-monetary nature. As an interesting aside, other forms of exonumia include military medals, tokens used in business to exchange for goods and services such as for carwashes or subway fares, commemorative coins, and personal tokens used to identify group affiliations, such as members of the Freemasons.

Saloon tokens are a type of trade token, a token used by businesses in exchange for a service. In the early 21st century, businesses that use tokens are less prevalent, but still exist. Modern day businesses that use tokens include car washes, pizza parlors, toll booths, parking garages and casinos.

Tokens were big business in the late 19th century and early 20th century, and were used by reputable businesses, not just saloons. My fascination with the especially interesting sub-specialization of token collecting was piqued by the obvious ties of saloon tokens to the fascinating American West and its lore.

I first saw a saloon token collection at a special exhibit of saloon memorabilia on loan to the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona. The small, framed collection of antique saloon tokens caught my eye, and my imagination ran wild. They were made from different materials and were different shapes and sizes, but all of them had the distinctive patina of history that exuded "old west."

Why were tokens needed?

In the late 19th and early 20th century, money just couldn't travel quickly into the remote locales that needed it. Banks had to send money on stage coaches like the ones used in Wells Fargo advertisements, and by the Pony Express. Even though many goods were transported by train as the west was settled, boom and bust cycles sent large numbers of men and fewer women into some undeveloped territories in Alaska, Arizona, California, and other remote parts of the American West. Many of the people who settled the American West were poor, if not penniless. As more people flooded the countryside with less money in their pockets, it was only a matter of time before circulating money became scarce.

Another factor that comes into play is where these saloons are often found. The answer is mining camps. Mining companies in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and other states would hire miners and put them on payroll. The miners then bought their food from a company grocery store, and often bought supplies needed to do their jobs from the mining company. These expenses were deducted from miner's pay. This system, commonly used by mines in the late 19th century, was called paying by scrip. The result was not much legal tender cash flowing through the mining community. So the saloon owners, grocery stores, and dairy owners did what they had to do--they coined their own tokens to expedite trade for their goods and services, and keep the money out of the pocket of the mining companies.

Tokens are like puzzle pieces that tell the story of the place where they originated. They bear the names of the saloons and sometimes their proprietors. Tokens that clearly identify a city and state of origin are more valuable, because they can be tied to a historical provenance. In other words, it is easier to determine from historical records and business paper trails if tokens with an easy-to-identify place of origin are authentic. Tokens can make history come alive.

When were saloon tokens used?

Authentic saloon tokens were "minted" during the heyday of western saloons, roughly from about 1870 to 1910--earlier in some locales, and later in others. The wild west is riddled with ghost towns that emerged from the activities of mining camps and mining companies, but also were found in more settled areas in Old Mexico and the Western United States, like El Paso, Fort Worth, and select cities in California. Some cities in Texas and other areas of the American West were "dry" towns, meaning that it was illegal to run a saloon in those locales. I searched for saloon tokens from Abilene, Texas, one of these dry towns, and found nothing.

With a finite supply of authentic tokens, copycat tokens have emerged for the tourist trade. You can find copycat tokens sold in places like Bisbee, Arizona, and anywhere a tourist trade exists for the old west.

Which tokens are most sought after by collectors?

Authentic tokens that identify the name of a saloon, a town and state, and sometimes even the saloon's business owner, are highly desirable. Some locales are much more sought after than others by collectors of mining memorabilia or western memorabilia.

Token collecting, as in coin collecting, relies upon supply and demand. Rare tokens are more desirable and more expensive, but the popularity of the mining camp, ghost town, or town, or city, also add to the token's collecting value. For example, tokens from towns like Tombstone, Arizona are highly desirable, due to the legendary history that surrounds that town. These tokens are called territorial tokens.

Tokens with ties to the legends of Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, and other outlaws have considerable value to collectors of western memorabilia in general, so the market for these authentic tokens is greater. Token-collecting expert Richard Greever, runs Richard's Token Database. (See my link on the sidebar). In this database you can view images of tokens from all over the United States. His database includes all kinds of exonumismatic tokens, not just saloon tokens. When you use his database, limit the search by typing "saloon" in the database. If you are interested in broadening the scope of your collection to include drink tokens from bars and hotels, you may want to browse the database, too, since hotel bars also used tokens, but are not technically considered saloon tokens.

Tokens that aren't easy to identify and don't have a place name stamped on the token are called mavericks. Dedicated collectors in the Token and Medal Society (TAMS) post images of these maverick tokens in online databases to help solve the mystery of these maverick tokens' origins. Richard's Token Database also has an area dedicated to mavericks.

Starting a Saloon Token Collection

So you want to begin a token collection? Start first by acquainting yourself with the tokens in the token-collecting databases. Get registered and become a member. You will become acquainted with other token collectors like yourself.

Next, join a token collecting society. The Token and Medal Society (TAMS) and National Token Collectors' Association (NTCA) sends out specialty token newsletters to its members. The newsletter, titled Talkin' Tokens put out by the NTCA is over 40 pages long and has specialty articles on tokens. A sample newsletter on the NTCA web site shows the membership dues to be worth the cost of the information in this newsletter alone.

Where can you get tokens to collect?

Get a subscription to the token collecting society's newsletters. Collectors advertise tokens for sale or trade in advertisements in these periodicals. This is a specialized hobby, and token collecting periodicals have an audience of interested token collectors.

Many tokens are sold by dealers on Ebay and other auction sites, such as the one run by Holabird- Kagin auctioneers. And occasionally, tokens become available at live auctions, too. Auctions of western items are advertised in local newspapers like that of Wickenburg Arizona's local paper in the classified section, with auction activity increasing in the springtime. Most auction companies post auction information online, and some even post auction catalogs before the auction, or host their auctions online.

Source Information:

  • A special thanks to Richard Greever, Fred Holabird, Jerry Adams, and Linda Lantin, who granted me permission to use images from their excellent token collections for my article.
  • This article was the result of approximately three months of research, and the token images used were by permission of the owners. These images are the copyright of their owners.

Boom Town Saloon Tokens

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Comments 13 comments

Treasured Pasts profile image

Treasured Pasts 7 years ago from Commerce, Texas

Few people realize the value of these, especially those that say the actual word "saloon" and identify the state and town. Thanks for the hub.

Stuart


KCC Big Country profile image

KCC Big Country 7 years ago from Central Texas

I've never even seen or heard of them. How fascinating! Thanks for sharing!


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 7 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

@Treasured Pasts: It's interesting what people find collectible. I saw a lot of REALLY interesting collections when I lived in Wickenburg. These ones are particularly valuable, but not to be outdone by actual gold nuggets! I noticed after I wrote my article that you also had a similar one. I wonder how many people own these and don't realize what they have. It seems to me many Antiques Roadshow moments are in the making for some coin-collectors' heirs sometime in the future.

@KCC Big Country: I agree with you wholeheartedly. This was interesting to write and I was helped by some avid long-time collectors who generously shared their photos with me.


J. L. Connell 6 years ago

I have four original tokens.....Am I allowed to post photos of them?


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

J.L. Connell, I would encourage you to try Richard's Token Database or the Token and Medal Society. These are places where you could probably post your original token pictures, and where they would find the right audience.


jaymelee23 profile image

jaymelee23 6 years ago from United States

Wow - very nice and detailed hub. Thanks for sharing.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thanks jayme, this one took a long time to pull together but what a fascinating topic! I hope to get back on the horse with my western topics soon after I complete my year of children's reviews. You are too kind.


vietnamvet68 profile image

vietnamvet68 6 years ago from New York State

Great Hub, I have ran across a few of these in my time when i was collecting bus tokens. These types of items are fun collecting.Thanks for sharing


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Hey vietnamvet...these are quite valuable so I hope you are hanging on to the ones you find. Thanks for your comment!


mell_mel1972 5 years ago

my dad gave me three saloon tokens. not sure of the value but i found them very interesting. i never knew there were such things as saloon tokens. 2 tokens are from mable's whorehouse in las vegas, nevada. also say green stamps every wednesday. the other is from red garter saloon in reno, nevada. good for 50 cents in trade, whiskey, tobacco or one screw


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 5 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Mell that is suspiciously interesting since I just recently removed the references to this aspect of saloon tokens from my hub.


Bond 5 years ago

I have a fine collection of saloon tokens but, they are out done by military tokens in value. The comment regarding Richard's token databasse is accurate for authenticity and variety. It has general merchandise tokens, dairy and bakery tokens, amusement and transportation tokens as well as many other. No prices are posted and, but most states have at least one author of tokens books with prices included. It is a wonderful hobby and it pays you back.

Bond


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 5 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thanks Bond, I appreciate your comment. I don't have any knowledge of military token collecting but I can see how collecting military tokens would be an interesting complement to collecting saloon tokens, especially if one is collecting with the American West as a theme.

Richard's token database is a significant source of information for people who want to do serious token collecting and especially for people who want to interact with other token collectors. Thanks for setting me straight on that.

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